Nearly 25 years ago, I was one of hundreds of contributors to a massive and impressive new undertaking: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. The mission was to broaden and deepen the narrative of Jews in America by filling in the longstanding blank spots in the existing historical literature. Edited by women’s history pioneers professors Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, the encyclopedia, which now lives online at the Jewish Women’s Archive, transformed the historical narrative by placing women in their rightful place: in every nook and cranny of Jewish life, expected and unexpected, public and private.
Of the thousand entries, almost a third covered the area of “philanthropy and volunteerism.” Professor Susan Chambre’s overview of the topic explained why this made perfect sense: “Philanthropy has long been a principal vehicle for religious expression for Jewish women ... a separate sphere, an arena in which they can contribute to community life, often serving as a context for exercising influence in the larger community or society. In social settings where Jewish women have been discouraged from active or fulfilling careers in paid jobs, philanthropic work provided them with ‘invisible careers.’”
This understanding of the importance of philanthropy to American Jewish women’s lives, which informed my own graduate school research as well as two decades of work in the field, kept coming back to me as I read Lila Corwin Berman’s long-awaited history of American Jewish philanthropy, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution.
Astonishingly, the book contains no mention of Henrietta Szold, Rosalie Solomons Phillips, or any of the countless women, rich and poor alike, who have together given untold billions to Hadassah since 1912, making it the largest Jewish women’s organization in the world; nothing about Hannah G. Solomon and the National Council of Jewish Women, which predates Hadassah and is still going strong, engaging thousands of women each year in giving and in political advocacy. No consideration of the outsize role played by Jewish women philanthropists and volunteers in synagogues, schools, settlement houses, orphanages, hospitals, organizations for women and girls, and so much more.
Berman also essentially ignores the entire history of women in the Federation system. For example, we learn nothing about the women involved with the UJA Federation of New York as philanthropists and board members since its inception—women like Alice Davis Menken, settlement house worker, pioneer in the evolution of treatment of delinquent girls, and founder of the Jewish Board of Guardians; or Madeline Borg, not only a Federation board member but its first woman president (in 1939) and a founder of the Big Sister movement in America; or any of the plethora of women who served on Federation boards and committees across the country, gaining increasingly public recognition for their work after the 1970s. When she discusses entrepreneurial Jewish philanthropists and foundations that gained prominence in Jewish life in the last 40 years or so, Berman gives us only a handful of men, omitting entirely the many women who have led significant foundations that have invested deeply in American Jewish communal life as well as many other issues around the world: women like Henrietta Blaustein, Florence Melton, Buddy Mayer (Cummings), Mem Bernstein (AVI CHAI), Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson (Dorot), and Lynn and Stacy Schusterman (Schusterman Philanthropies).
Erasing women is only one way that Berman, a professor of American Jewish history at Temple University, distorts the extraordinarily complex and diverse story of American Jewish philanthropy.
For 20 years, I’ve been working in the Jewish philanthropic world, trying to amplify its strengths and address its challenges from within, especially by expanding access to giving for people at all economic levels and by supporting transformative new initiatives. I’ve developed a profound appreciation for the very people whom Berman has eliminated from her story: the millions of givers, of all economic classes, who have been responsible for building an unparalleled system of American Jewish philanthropy over the centuries. Berman not only leaves out all these people, but also nearly everything that their energy and money has built—nearly every organization in the system—not to mention all of the emotional, psychological, sociological, civic, and religious reasons why givers might choose to devote their precious resources to Jewish communal life in the first place.
The book’s dustjacket and marketing materials promise readers a “comprehensive” history, but what we get instead is a narrow portrait of a handful of extremely rich, often politically conservative male mega-philanthropists, and a tendentious framing of philanthropic history as the solidification of a nefarious “American Jewish philanthropic complex,” echoing the grave threat of the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned Americans about in 1961. In Berman’s telling, Jewish philanthropy is just as scary: a system designed primarily to accumulate philanthropic capital; to invest it in financial markets; to avoid taxation on it; and then to use these growing sums to coerce Jews and Americans to follow mainly right-leaning political agendas.
There are indeed many serious problems in the philanthropic sector, as Berman knows, not least because she learned it from the long list of funders and philanthropic professionals whom she interviewed for the book, myself included. Many of her interviewees no doubt told her about the ways funders and professionals wrestle constantly with questions of money, power, and impact; with the challenges facing Jewish communities around the world (including in the State of Israel); and with the need to sustain Jewish communities that are religiously, ethnically, politically, economically, and culturally diverse.
Berman acknowledges none of this. Instead, we get a grim narrative of dangerous top-down power that rhymes neatly with other contemporary explanations of America and the Jews’ place within it, where philanthropy, like many other ecosystems today, is demonized as an elite, Western, neo-colonialist, white, money-laundering charade—one more tool that the powerful use to control society, pacify the powerless, and undemocratically shape public policy around private agendas. In Berman’s version, philanthropy is just another institution of alleged privilege that must be dismantled in the name of justice.
It’s her right to tell the story this way, of course. But I feel an obligation to the millions of people who have built Jewish life in this country—women and men, young and old, right wing and left wing and everything in between—to note the book’s many omissions, inaccuracies, and distortions. As with so much academic work these days, Berman’s book uses the forms and the language of scholarship in the service of activism. It’s a slanted reading of the past designed to bolster a critique of the present. History can honorably be used to inform the present and guide the future, but only, I would argue, if the historian comes to it with a truly open mind. Anyone committed to building a thriving future for Jews in America would do well to understand not only the book’s flaws, but also the systematic distortions of reality being enforced by the broader movement of which it is a part.
In many ways, American Jewish history begins with philanthropy, with Jewish communities taking care of their own—who else would have?—while also supporting their non-Jewish neighbors, building goodwill in a world where their survival was always precarious.
In 1654, 23 Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, fleeing the Inquisition’s arrival in their home of Recife, Brazil. They were met with a hostile reception. Governor Peter Stuyvesant requested permission from his employers at the Dutch West India Company to expel the Jewish newcomers. The company demurred, instead mandating a compromise that became known as the “Stuyvesant Promise”: The Jews could stay, “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation.” The promise made by this small group of Jews as a condition of their settlement formed the bedrock of the Jewish philanthropic and communal infrastructure in America, which expanded in size and complexity as the Jewish population grew.
The Stuyvesant Promise remained essentially unbroken for nearly 300 years, until the Great Depression created a tidal wave of need that Jewish voluntary and philanthropic systems could no longer meet. By the 1930s, Jewish leaders and givers (including many women) had created innumerable communal organizations to attempt to meet the needs of the nearly 2 million Eastern European Jews who arrived in America between 1881 and 1921, many of whom were penniless, unskilled, and spoke no English. (These were among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that Jewish poet—and philanthropist—Emma Lazarus described in her 1883 poem, “The New Colossus,” which she wrote as part of the fundraising efforts to build a pedestal for the new Statue of Liberty.) Federations had emerged in many major Jewish communities as a tool to simplify what Benjamin Selekman, a longtime Boston Federation leader, called in 1935 the “unending and competitive money raising campaigns“ emanating from all of those organizations. The Federations quickly assumed additional roles as centralized planners and communal conveners. The Federation model spread rapidly, eventually engaging vast swaths of North American Jews in giving to, volunteering for, and working on behalf of Jewish communal organizations.
Jewish tradition idealizes neither poverty nor wealth. It acknowledges and accepts the reality of economic inequality, yet it also mandates care for the vulnerable, boasting a sturdy set of laws and principles around charitable activities to which everyone, high and low, is obligated. The preeminent value of tzedakah and the cultural norm that kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh—all Jews are responsible for one another—persisted in America even as religious affiliation declined. Indeed, the challenges and opportunities of Jewish life led Jews to create a unique, complicated, simultaneously harmonious and conflicted philanthropic ecosystem, one that empowered millions of givers, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, to support tens of thousands of organizations, domestically and abroad. Whether voluntarily, out of a sense of commandedness, or because of peer pressure or pride, American Jews built a philanthropic and communal infrastructure with no parallel in Jewish history.
This includes a breathtakingly diverse range of human services organizations, including Jewish alternatives to institutions that excluded Jews before the second half of the 20th century, like hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes; institutions of Jewish religion, education, and community, like synagogues, schools, summer camps, community centers, youth groups, seminaries, and universities; mechanisms for economic empowerment like job training, English lessons, and no-interest loans for immigrants and for the poor; vehicles for the flowering of a unique American Jewish culture; organizations focused on Jewish defense, political advocacy, and relief for Jews abroad; interfaith and community relations efforts; the rescue and resettlement of Jewish refugees abroad; and the “building up” of the State of Israel and its relationship with Jews around the world.
The history of American Jewish philanthropy is not only a story about the wealthy. It is about all of us: Hadassah ladies, synagogue and JCC trustees, Federation donors, b’nai mitzvah kids with tzedakah projects, JNF tree-planters, and so much more. As the eminent historian Salo Baron put it in a 1965 speech to the New York Federation, philanthropy has been the one area of Jewish life around which an argumentative people could agree: “all Jews agreed that the sick needed care and the poor required support, and so their support became the focal endeavor of the entire community.”
Rather than tell this broad, complicated, rich story of 350 years of Jewish philanthropy in America with the enormous, interconnected web of initiatives and institutions it has built, Berman indicts the entire system through a narrow and manipulative lens, crafting a crude narrative of powerful people, institutions, and agendas—the “complex”—that have a pernicious influence not only on Jewish communities, but also on America itself. While American Jews serve merely as the designated stand-in for her real targets—American capitalism and right-leaning politics (real or perceived)—Berman trains her lens solely on the Jews, without context or comparison to any other Americans, leading to the understandable conclusion that Jewish philanthropy poses a unique, or at least disproportionate, threat to America.
One of Berman’s core arguments is that the institutions of American Jewish philanthropy are no longer interested in serving the common good, but have instead become narrowly obsessed with “capital accumulation” through the creation of endowments. “Capital accumulation” as a phrase appears in some form almost 40 times in the book; “tzedakah” appears but once, “generosity,” twice. To make her case for “a new logic of collective Jewish philanthropy oriented around accumulation, not distribution,” she simply omits, entirely, the story of the “distribution” side of the equation—nearly all of the causes that Jewish philanthropic dollars have supported. She quantifies almost none of her claims that accumulation has replaced distribution—indeed, the lack of almost any numbers in the book is startling, and a clue to understanding its flaws.
Berman focuses her discussion of endowments primarily on the Federation system, arguing that a desire to accumulate and invest capital led Jewish philanthropists and institutions to abandon the “revolving door” mode of Federation activities where donations are dispersed immediately. This shift to “accumulation,” in her telling, has turned American Jewish philanthropy into a tool just for hoarding capital. And it poses a threat to democracy itself: first, because it focuses communal attention on a small number of wealthy endowment donors, and second, because it invests their philanthropic dollars in “capitalism” (a term that appears 95 times), which, in her view, stands a priori in opposition to democracy.
The problem with this argument is that it isn’t true. The shift from distribution to accumulation simply has not occurred.
The “revolving door” of annual campaigns has never ceased to be the primary focus of Federations: Every year, the 220 Jewish Federations across North America hold annual fundraising campaigns, the proceeds of which they spend the next year, both on grant allocations to local organizations and on their own operational expenses and programs. According to the Jewish Federations of North America, this annual giving totaled about $2 billion in 2020.
The annual campaign—often just called the “campaign”—has remained the lifeblood of Federations since their inception, engaging hundreds of thousands of donors each year. Campaigns represent an enormous staff and volunteer undertaking, and they are among the Federations’ largest items of operating expense (personnel, events, direct mail, marketing materials, etc.) In fact, many people who stop giving to Federations over time do so precisely because of the continued preeminence of the annual campaign: Many donors want to have more control over where their dollars go, and they resent that part of their donation goes to the operating costs associated with raising money. (Endowment efforts, by contrast, are often cheaper than annual fundraising, requiring less staff and volunteer time—more bang for the buck and little need for ongoing relationship stewarding.)
The total assets held by Federation endowments have certainly grown over time, partly due to contributions and partly to investment returns, and it does indeed dwarf the amount raised each year through annual campaigns. But this is to be expected—and in my view, welcome: The nature of an endowment is hopefully to grow over time, so it can throw off more funds each year for charitable use. The numeric disparity is not necessarily a reflection of the system’s priorities—it’s the nature of the beast. (The book’s one chart, which compares endowment assets with annual contributions, fails to account for investment performance at all—thus implying that it is active contributions to endowments that explain the growth, when in fact the curve tracks with overall American stock market performance for the same period.)
Moreover, the basis for Berman’s position that philanthropic and nonprofit entities ought not to use capitalist tools to build their financial stability is unclear. Nonprofits and foundations have never purported to operate “outside of the world of profit and finance,” as she asserts. Rather, their proposition is that all “profits” are utilized exclusively for charitable purposes. The more their investments earn, the more they can give away. Not every problem can be solved immediately (or at all)—hence the need for stable, ongoing sources of funding. Nor does Berman offer a plausible sketch for what the world might look like if endowments didn’t exist and all philanthropic donations had to be raised every year and entirely and immediately put to use. (Anyone in the nonprofit world could tell you what that would look like: a complete disaster.)
While Berman is right that most of the money raised via planned giving and to endowments sits in investment vehicles, endowments are far from mere “capital accumulation vehicles.” Universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and more create endowments because they promote future sustainability, which the variable, even fickle nature of annual giving does not. Form follows function: Some causes will always be with us and require perennial sources of funding (arts and culture, poverty, health care, education); other problems might actually be solved with more immediate cash distributions (emergency relief, capital construction, medical research). An obvious case in point would be the COVID-19 pandemic, when many institutions were saved by being able to draw upon their endowments, and many foundations and Federations were able to increase their giving to meet emergency needs by drawing on their endowments.
A percentage of endowment assets must be disbursed every year, and in the Federation system, endowments are put to use as a critical source of funding for the annual campaign itself. At UJA-Federation of New York, for example, the endowment is the second-largest source of funding for the annual campaign. Across the Federation system, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, endowment income and contributions from donor-advised fund holders provide half of the $2 billion that Federations distribute annually. The rest comes from the donations to the annual campaign. The “revolving door” has never stopped turning.
It’s now even possible to put invested endowment capital to use in ways that align with the mission of the institution through “impact investing”—the Nathan Cummings Foundation, for example, announced in 2018 that it was moving 100% of its half-billion dollar endowment into mission-aligned investment vehicles. Berman critiques this mechanism, too, however, viewing it as “widening the scope of ... power” through investments—instead of seeing it as a way to amplify philanthropic impact and diversify the philanthropic toolbox. The one Jewish impact investing fund, JLens, comes under her withering eye just for being an investment vehicle at all, and for being against BDS. (She decries JLens for opposing divestment by “using the power of their capital to punish companies,” without noting that that is literally the purpose and tactic of divestment efforts themselves.)
Berman makes her “accumulation” argument by ignoring the “distribution” that actually exists, and she offers no quantitative evidence to back up her claims. It’s an incredible distortion.
The book’s other guiding premise is that the philanthropic “complex” has evolved into a tool that the wealthy use to disenfranchise the masses, which threatens democracy itself. By prioritizing endowments—the diversion of the financial resources of the wealthy from immediate needs into capital markets—Jewish philanthropy denies individuals the ability to influence Jewish communal life through the more “democratic” means of annual giving. In Berman’s framework, “capitalism” and “democracy” sit at opposite poles, pulling on philanthropy from either side.
As with her narrative of accumulation, however, Berman invents a narrative of disenfranchisement by simply ignoring the continuous, pervasive influences of mass giving in Jewish philanthropy. Mass giving is both a longstanding Jewish story as well as an American one. As historian Olivier Zunz notes in his history of American philanthropy, mass engagement with philanthropy in America is actually what makes philanthropy an essential element of our ever-evolving democracy. “Philanthropy would not be a democratic value if it remained the domain of the wealthy,” he argues. “[W]hat gave philanthropy ... a central place in modern American life was the simultaneous creation of a people’s philanthropy—or mass philanthropy—that engaged the large American middle and working classes in their own welfare.”
In the philanthropic arena, as the saying goes, Jews are like other Americans, only more so. Philanthropic activity has served as a central expression of Jewishness in America—what sociologist Jon Woocher famously called the “civil religion” of American Jews, and which historian Jonathan Sarna later labeled “Federation Judaism.” Giving serves as an essential element of American Jewish identity and communal engagement; it has shaped the character of American Jewish life. As the few quantitative studies about Jews and philanthropy have demonstrated (like the useful Connected to Give series, which I helped to advise), a higher percentage of Jews engage in charitable giving than people from other American religious groups, and Jews give more money per capita than other Americans do.
Berman simply ignores the continued existence of mass giving, never quantifying the numbers of donors in the system, past or present. (This is admittedly hard to do, but is essential to any history.) Historian Jack Wertheimer recently estimated that “giving by the largest 250 foundations interested in Jewish causes represents less than one-fifth of the total” of American Jewish philanthropy. The rest is given by individuals, especially those giving locally, who are the “mainstay of Jewish communal life.” In aggregate they give far more than the foundations that attract so much of the critics’ ire. “These funders of the day-to-day necessities,” Wertheimer writes, “are indispensable.” They give through Federations, foundations, community foundations, donor-advised funds, and directly from their bank accounts, supporting an immense web of institutions large and small, leaning left, right and center, and operating locally, nationally, and globally. The book says nothing about these manifold grassroots, individual and local efforts across the centuries by millions of American Jews to make change in their communities through their giving.
The other key contention within Berman’s argument about the “undemocratic” nature of Jewish philanthropy is that the existence of charitable tax deductions and exemptions makes this philanthropic dollars “public” money. American taxpayers are actually “subsidizing” charitable giving, she asserts, without being able to exercise power over where that giving goes. Yet although Berman presents this perspective as fact, it is actually simply one side of a robust debate. The other side is often taken by small-government, free-enterprise, centrist and conservative thinkers. Irving Kristol summed up the other side of the argument in a 1980 speech to the Council on Foundations:
Under the tax laws, the contributions made to foundations are deductible from income. If you say that that money is public money, you are saying: “Well, the government has the right to all our money, but it doesn’t exercise this right at all times or in all respects. It leaves some of that governmental money for us to spend, and therefore we have public responsibility attached to that money.” ... The money [foundations] spend is private money. It is not public money. Money that the government does not take is ours.
Berman’s claim that Jewish philanthropic funds pose a “threat” to democracy feels especially disingenuous because she only provides examples of giving that she herself appears to disfavor—especially donations relating to Israel, which she repeatedly asserts reflected the views of a few politically conservative philanthropists but not the Jewish masses. She never quantifies or provides support for this apparent disparity, and hedges her bets by alleging that philanthropists use their power to coerce the opinions of unwitting Jews.
I was left wondering whether Berman believes that philanthropy also threatens democracy when it supports, for example, causes like racial justice efforts (tens of billions of dollars given by foundations and corporations in 2020); reproductive health care, which a recent Vox article noted approvingly, is driven by billionaire philanthropy since government’s reliance on the “whims of the American electorate” means it can’t be relied upon to take the correct side of the issue; or even when it is given explicitly to “rehabilitate” democracy and civic engagement. Did philanthropy’s efforts in support of the successful legalization of gay marriage constitute a threat to democracy? (And why not mention the interesting Jewish philanthropy story that the charitable giving of many wealthy, conservative Jewish capitalists fueled that movement?) Does philanthropy threaten democracy when it creates endowed chairs for professors, like the one Berman and so many of her academic colleagues hold?
Jewish givers have directed untold billions to left-leaning Jewish, American, and Israeli organizations, including Jewish feminist organizations, the Jewish labor movement, the 70 organizations that make up the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, environmental and climate change organizations, and left-leaning Israel-focused organizations like New Israel Fund, JStreet, T’ruah, B’Tselem, and so on.
By ignoring the existence of left-leaning philanthropy of any sort (except for a brief, fawning story in the epilogue about a young progressive heiress who supports social justice causes, an example of what Berman calls philanthropic “reform”), Berman not only ignores what is likely the bulk of Jewish giving, but also labels outcomes of democratic choices that she appears not to like as “undemocratic”—a stance which itself stands in opposition to democratic norms.
The most egregious example of this type of distortion occurs in her discussion of Birthright Israel, the only philanthropic recipient she discusses at any length in the book. Birthright represents an apotheosis of the “complex,” in Berman’s view. Founded and funded by prominent philanthropists Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and eventually supported heavily by the late casino owner and Republican Sheldon Adelson, Birthright’s mission—to expose its young adult participants to Israel firsthand, bolster their Jewish identity, and connect them to each other—is meaningful to Berman only insofar as it appears to manifest all of the coercive, right-leaning, Israel-supporting tropes that supposedly characterize Jewish philanthropy, but not the true views of the Jewish people.
Again, Berman’s blinkered framing distorts the story—this time, of what is arguably the most important American Jewish philanthropic story of the last few decades. Instead of exploring, for example, any of the reasons why more than 750,000 young adults from 68 countries have opted into free Birthright Israel trips over the past 20 years, and instead of analyzing the extraordinarily large and diverse set of donors of all sizes, including tens of thousands of trip alumni and their families who have chosen to support the program over this period, Berman focuses only on a tiny group of young, progressive critics who have castigated the program for a variety of perceived sins over the years, especially that it doesn’t go to the West Bank, and that it has a Republican major donor who, naturally, must be using the program to promote his right-wing agenda.
Berman implies but fails to demonstrate that these critiques are widespread. Her assertions of a “growing fervor ... from within and outside of the Jewish community” scrutinizing Birthright’s political positions or financial practices, or her references to “mounting criticism” and “rising criticism” of the program are never quantified nor even backed up by footnotes. The fact that a handful of young progressive critics created the hashtag #JewsNotFundedBySheldonAdelson is enough, apparently, to “expose the hold that Adelson exercised over American Jewish life.” And while she acknowledges that actual, empirical evidence by researchers disproves the activists’ claims that the trip makes participants “more right wing,” she nevertheless implies that the research findings are suspect because they come from a research center at Brandeis University to which Michael Steinhardt gave a naming gift in 2005.
Casting the program in this light erases the agency of everyone except for the few philanthropists and Israeli officials who created and funded Birthright, and the small band of progressives who criticize it. To acknowledge that a truly extraordinary number of people have chosen to go on Birthright trips and to support the organization with their philanthropy would be to admit that individuals and donors have minds of their own, and that huge numbers of young adult Jews, their parents, and those who give to the program, all seem to want exactly what Birthright is offering. As with so many other programs and people and phenomena touched on in this book, a genuinely interesting and complex idea is reduced to politics—and the real story, good and bad, fascinating and challenging, remains in the dark.
Writing about topics like Jews and money is always a challenge, and I agree with Berman’s assertion, early in the book, that Jewish historians ought not to shy away from studying and writing about challenging topics that might be interpreted negatively by ill-intentioned readers. It’s somewhat shocking, then, to read a book that at every turn seems to take the path most likely to lead readers in the direction of antisemitic interpretation.
In a book that makes the important argument that the Jewish engagement with the American state has not received enough attention, Berman nevertheless relates the history of this engagement in a way that takes Jewish behaviors so out of context as to make them seem unique—even dangerously so. For example, she clearly has a bone to pick with American tax laws around charitable giving, but rather than take that issue up with America, she focuses only on the ways that Jews seemed to have disproportionately shaped and taken advantage of those laws for their own gain. She offers no points of comparison with the activities of other ethnic or religious communities, nor does she ask how, if at all, the actual substance of Jewishness—religion, culture, sensibilities, community—is relevant to the story.
I’m not accusing Berman of antisemitism. What I am saying is that for an American Jewish historian, she has bizarrely framed her book so narrowly as to make it very easy to draw conclusions that reflect extremely poorly upon the Jews alone, since she fails to put Jewish behavior in any kind of broader context. Berman creates the impression that Jews were disproportionately fixated on “capital accumulation,” without discussing the rise of endowments in the nonprofit sector writ large; and that Jews disproportionately advocated for—and influenced—American policy on charitable giving, tax reform, and Israel, without discussing whether Jews acted differently than any group in the American system seeking particular political or economic outcomes. (Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby makes an obligatory appearance in the footnotes.) It is thus easy to conclude that Jewish philanthropy disproportionately threatens American democracy.
What conclusions are readers supposed to draw? The “complex,” as Berman describes it, pulls together all of the favorite bogeymen of our time, and her claims about its influence echo a number of classic antisemitic tropes. The lack of any discussion of Jewishness—of the ways that actual Jewish ideas, values, or social constructs, might have been relevant to the history of Jewish philanthropy—only makes the drawing of nefarious conclusions more inevitable. The only motivations mentioned in the book are a desire for money and power: We’re offered no other sense of why Jews, qua Jews, would have acted in this way.
This problem emerges most vividly in an extensive discussion of the midcentury efforts of tax attorney Norm Sugarman to preserve tax deductions and exemptions for charitable activities. Sugarman apparently had a profound and unique impact on the Tax Reform Act of 1969, but Berman never explains why Sugarman’s Jewishness is relevant to the story, nor does she discuss any other actors in what is, ultimately, a complicated but normal process of policy advocacy in the American democratic system.
“Sugarman was nearly peerless in his commitment to opening new channels for private capital to flow toward philanthropic ends,” she writes, without telling us anything about his peers. “[He] worked with remarkable speed and vigor ... crafting models for legal reform by enacting them preemptively,” she tells us, without noting that this is the way that policy change is made. “[H]e enlisted his clients and friends, many of them important Jewish leaders, to use whatever resources they had to tip the political balance to allow philanthropic capital to operate free of government interference or regulation.” Important Jews tipping political balances sounds pretty dastardly, but she offers no sense for how many Jews were in on this plan, whether they were representing personal, institutional, or communal interests; whether Sugarman was representing Jewish organizations in this work; and how it is even relevant that some of his friends and clients were Jewish.
Elsewhere Berman has theorized about the value of disconnecting the idea of “Jewishness” in history from actual Jews. I want precisely the opposite: some concrete, evidence-based understanding of why, exactly, Sugarman’s Jewishness mattered. Although he is one of the few named actors in the book, and the only one who isn’t a wealthy philanthropist, we learn nothing about Norm Sugarman as a person. Why did he allegedly devote his life to creating vehicles to incentivize Americans, some of them Jews, to give to charity? Was it only because, as Berman asserts, he believed the “very purpose” of the Congressional regulations was to create “capital-rich futures for public charities”? That’s not a bad goal, in my mind, but is this really what got Norm Sugarman up in the morning, not least as a Jew? Might he not have also been motivated by, say, a desire to make the world a better place?
Indicting what is, in the end, the American system—capitalism, philanthropy, tax policy—by scrutinizing only the activities of Jewish groups and individuals as if their goals or behaviors were somehow unique, and alleging an obsession with capital accumulation without a concomitant discussion of its distribution, is dangerously distorting. This approach leaves the impression that American Jews, whether acting under Jewish auspices or not, operate in ways that pose a unique threat to America.
Why would a well-respected American Jewish scholar like Berman write history this way?
Earning a Ph.D. in American Jewish history from Brandeis taught me that the back-and-forth of scholarly argument over time—discovering new information, making new arguments, agreeing and disagreeing—moves us ever closer to an apprehension of the truth. Embracing diverse views has become a hallmark of my career, where I’ve worked on local and national models of collaborative giving that bring people together to give together—to radically different kinds of organizations—across social, political, religious and ethnic divides. Working closely over 20 years with colleagues of all backgrounds has strongly reinforced my appreciation for the power of heterodoxy and diversity, and dissuaded me from viewing the world through a purely political lens. (No doubt some will argue that these associations in the philanthropic sector invalidate my critique; I invite them to engage instead with my ideas.)
In America’s top colleges and universities, however, where Berman has spent her career, viewpoint diversity has been replaced with political homogeneity, and “seeking truth” seems to have been abandoned in favor of “speaking truth to power.” Since the 1980s, the creeping takeover of the academy—and now much of K-12 education as well—by postmodernism has led to a growing rejection of the previous scholarly ideal of objectivity and an embrace of the marriage between scholarship and social activism. Since the majority of professors on American university campuses lean quite left, that activism winds up being pretty one-sided. I wonder how many casual readers of history books today know that the rules have changed so thoroughly—and that the turn to activism, nearly always left-leaning, is fundamentally reshaping the very institutions, like the university, that originally rose to prominence precisely because they were expected to prize and reward dispassionate, objective, scientific, and well-reasoned analysis and debate?
Jewish studies is far from immune from these trends, as a growing tendency among Jewish studies scholars to issue open letters on current events, and the very existence of the Jewish Studies Activist Network (on whose Coordinating Committee Berman sits), clearly demonstrate.
There’s nothing wrong with activism, but I believe that the marriage between scholarship and activism is dangerous, especially when a scholar’s biases and agenda are not put front and center. Readers need to understand the assumptions and beliefs that shape—and too often distort—the questions that scholars ask and the conclusions that they reach. The British historian Richard J. Evans warned about the ways politics can undermine scholarship more than 20 years ago in his critique of postmodernism, In Defense of History: “[P]olitical commitment, freed by postmodernist relativism from the shackles that normally bind historians to the facts” can produce “a deeply flawed work which clearly distorts or misinterprets the source material in the service of present-day ideology.”
While I very much appreciate the perspective that an outsider to the system can bring, there is a fundamental clash, in my view, between the deconstructionist approach of postmodern academics and the constructive, productive work of day-to-day philanthropy. Deconstructionists don’t offer many solutions: Their work is to take things apart, and they seldom suggest practical ideas for putting things back together. Philanthropy, on the other hand, searches for and creates solutions for the problems and opportunities facing real people every day, building systems to care for people in the real world, right now. It’s far from perfect; but it is a reflection of the diversity and complexity of the millions of people who engage with it every day.
One solution that Berman and I agree on is that building a strong future for Jewish philanthropy requires the inclusion of many more people in philanthropic activity. But we clearly differ in our understanding of what “democratizing” philanthropy means. Berman’s focus is on “participatory grantmaking,” which does nothing to enlarge the philanthropic pie, but simply gives power to different people to decide where other people’s money should go. (Notably, she wrote that particular monograph while on a fellowship created by Jewish megadonors, who were very open to funding a scholar like Berman to develop an innovative idea to change Jewish philanthropy.) There’s nothing wrong with this idea in theory, but one wonders where it ends: Do I get to decide where Berman gives her money, and she, mine? Are Orthodox, or politically conservative Russian, Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews included in the groups that would be tapped to sit on decision-making boards in this more participatory philanthropic system?
Rather than give some people control over other people’s money, I prefer that we empower many more people to give to whatever causes inspire them. This is pluralism and democracy: I want to grow the pie, not redistribute the pieces. To add many more voices, opinions, value systems, and passions to the conversation, not to take decision-making power away from some. I think this is an existential need for philanthropy and for our country more generally: more people empowered, more people engaged, more people devoting their time, attention, and dollars to the causes and issues they care about.
The cynical notion that “philanthropy” is only for the rich, that the wealthy have a harmful agenda, and that small amounts of money can’t make a difference against a juggernaut of capitalist megadonor power prevents people from seeing that giving at all levels can make real change. The zero-sum view of how power works in philanthropy and in society is profoundly disempowering, leading to a culture of complaint and a sense of victimization, rather than fostering engagement in the necessary project of making constructive social change.
What’s especially frustrating about this misguided take on a critically important subject is that we live in a moment where philanthropy’s value has never been more apparent. Last spring, the Jewish communal world seemed on the verge of catastrophic organizational collapse. All institutions were forced to close; earned income evaporated instantly; the stock market crashed: unemployment soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Jewish leaders, including me, feared the worst.
But the apocalypse didn’t happen. Government loans to nonprofits had a huge impact—the first time that most Jewish organizations had ever gotten U.S. government funding, thanks to lobbying efforts by the Jewish Federations of North America and other nonprofit advocacy groups to have nonprofits included in the Small Business Administration loans. But on the ground, in Jewish institutions and homes across the country, something even more significant took place: a groundswell of Jewish givers, in partnership with tens of thousands of hardworking communal professionals, kept Jewish institutions alive. We live in a moment where philanthropic vitality not only sustains a diverse ecosystem of communal institutions in normal times, but has also seen it through one of the greatest challenges any of us have ever faced.
Berman and I also agree that we need a flourishing literature about American Jewish philanthropy (and more philanthropists, foundations, and philanthropic institutions should preserve their archives for research). Were her book but one of many diving into this enormous and complicated topic, it would bother me much less; it would take its place on a shelf of diverse works from multiple perspectives and disciplines, telling many different kinds of stories. But for now, we only have Berman’s jaundiced take, a sweeping indictment that aligns with contemporary academic trends, yet fails to engage with nearly the entire history she purports to examine. In writing the story in this fashion Berman does a disservice to the millions of Jewish givers who have allocated billions of dollars for charitable purposes and supported countless Jewish philanthropic efforts to make the world a better place. Jewish philanthropy—a system that belongs to all of us—deserves better.
Felicia Herman is President of Natan, a venture philanthropy in New York; Director of the Aligned Grant Program of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, which was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and Managing Editor of SAPIR: A Journal of Jewish Conversations.